This window into an evolving new strategy at Coke came during Isdell's appearance here at the annual conference of the Consumer Analyst Group of New York.
Coke has been vilified for years for the sugar content and calories in some of its soft drinks. Last year, Coke was part of an industry-wide effort to pull sugary soft drinks out of schools after protests by consumer advocates.
Diet sodas remained, however, after Coke and industry leaders convinced former President Bill Clinton, a Diet Coke drinker and an organizer of the schools effort, that diet drinks shouldn't be a part of the voluntary ban.
That may have been the start of a whole new tack for Coke, which has struggled for years with flat sales of its flagship carbonated soft drinks, especially in North America.
Zero a model
Isdell told stock analysts Thursday the company's "successful" launch of Coke Zero, which boasts Coke Classic flavor with no calories, is part of a new wave of drinks he argues should also be considered part of the booming health and wellness beverage sector.
In addition to the new Zero line, which extends into everything from Sprite to Cherry Coke, the company introduced its vitamin enhanced Diet Coke Plus to analysts here this week.
In other words, this isn't your mother's Coke.
Isdell said choosing a soft drink without sugar and calories also can be considered a health-conscious act.
To drive home that message, Coke plans to engage the public in a conversation about its expanding waistline. The company will spend money on everything from nutritional studies to awareness campaigns about diet and exercise.
Coke executives will try to refocus the obesity debate away from soft drinks and toward sedentary lifestyles, arguing that even a 150-calorie can of Coke is an acceptable choice for some depending on their level of exercise.
"Video games are a major part of the problem," Isdell told the analysts.
'Sparkling' replaces 'carbonated'
Coke has even begun to change the words it uses to describe its drinks. Starting with the company's fourth quarter earnings report last week, Coke tossed out the term "carbonated soft drinks" in favor of sparkling beverages.
Coke executives say "carbonated soft drinks" have been stigmatized, and executives are using the new term to pull in an emerging generation of drinks that use light carbonation in everything from purified water to green tea. If the term "sparkling" sticks, then soft drinks like Diet Coke would be mentioned in the same breath as the company's Dasani carbonated water.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has criticized Coke for years for everything from its sales of sugary drinks in schools to its latest caffeine-stoked carbonated green tea drink, Enviga.
Just this week the group praised Pepsi for including caffeine content on its labels and challenged Coke to follow suit. Coke was already part of the same industry-wide effort to do so and has plans to introduce similar labels in May.
When asked after the analyst Q&A how Coke planned to engage the Center for Science as it continues its aggressive campaign against Coke, Isdell said such a task is difficult because of the group's bias against global corporations.
Instead, Isdell said, Coke will try to disseminate its own science and facts to buffer the center's attacks.
Growth abroad is 'key'
Isdell's remarks about obesity followed an hour-long address to the full conference in which he focused on Coke's plans to reverse years of stagnant stock prices with a bevy of new non-carbonated drinks, as well as innovative new diet soft drinks.
Coke's emphasis in the coming years will be on capturing more of the bottled and canned ready-to-drink beverage market.
Isdell said consumer spending for these products will grow by nearly 6 percent to about $645 billion a year by 2010. Coke's share of consumer spending on such products now is just 20 percent, Isdell said, emphasizing there is plenty of room for Coke to grow.
One way to do that, Isdell said, is to push harder in established and emerging international markets, where cost of goods pressures aren't as big of a problem as they are now in North America.
"We are committed to win on our home field, but international is the key to the future," he said.
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